The agency CEO asked me not to use his name. He wanted to talk privately over breakfast. "You know, this new business thing is getting to be a problem, he said. "We're addicted to falling in love with our next new client, and the one after that and the one after that. They will solve all our problems. We'll do great award-winning work, be well paid, and loved in return … and all the industry crap will disappear. We'll pour our heart and soul into winning them. They're coy; both flirtatious and distant, making us want them even more. We're no better than lovesick teenagers. And when it goes our way, and we get together and have a wonderful first year, it's true love … before it turns to crap. We hate the crap. We would rather be in love. That's why we love new clients and everything it takes to win them."
Are agency-client relationships becoming loveless marriages that end up on the rocks? Do the divorced partners, free of the ties that bind, become serial daters, falling in and out of love so often that "commitment" sounds boring and dated -- something that was done by their parents in another creative era? If brands are the children of agency-client relationships, what will happen to them as they're shuttled from one relationship to another? Will they grow and make positive contributions? Or, more likely, will they underperform (as they are today)?
Addicts of every stripe -- from gambling, sex, shoes, alcohol, drugs, food, spending -- recognize the dopamine rush from the anticipation of winning. Serious reformed addicts, like writer Susan Cheever, throw cold water on the concept. "Addiction," she writes, "is always a broken promise, whether it's a promise made to oneself or to another person."
It may be that the real problem is the daily grind of ongoing relationships and the lack of satisfaction therein. Chaotic briefing and ad approval processes. Out-of-scope work. Ongoing, unsatisfactory discussions with procurement. Abusive treatment. Too much power in the wrong hands. Too little influence over client directions. Mutual insecurity. CMOs knowing that their jobs are secure for only 3-4 years. Agencies knowing that they are unlikely to survive a CMO change.
Winning a new client today is not an inspirational Don Draper experience. It's more like surviving Navy Seals training without the certainty of a Navy Seals career.
All addicts eventually learn that they must take personal responsibility for the failures that drive them to seek short-term, self-destructive highs.
Agencies are insufficiently trained or committed to creating genuine long-term relationships. They execute tactically, and sometimes brilliantly, but their relationships fall short of generating long-term brand successes. This elusive goal is complicated by media fragmentation, e-commerce, fickle Millennials, inadequate budgets and a lack of winning ideas. Rather than investing seriously to overcome these complexities, agencies have become passive, eroding their capabilities in response to the pressure to generate quarterly profits, hoping to hang on as long as possible.
New business pitching is at a new industry high -- because agencies are being fired from their relationships at extraordinary rates. It's too bad for everyone that there is such a dopamine rush from pitching activity. The new business high masks the relationship failures that create so many new business "opportunities."
It would be better for agencies to kick the habit and find success and happiness in long-term relationships. It's a positive experience that any reformed addict fully understands.
Cartoon credit: Ted Goff, The New Yorker, The Cartoon Bank. With permission.
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